Apples & Oranges & Lemons
There are a few unavoidable observations regarding Dogs Die in Hot Cars that I must immediately address:
1. The band may hail from Glasgow, Scotland, but it sounds nothing like Franz Ferdinand. Shame on you for assuming otherwise.
2. The band’s name—Dogs Die in Hot Cars—isn’t as ridiculous as Insane Clown Posse, but it is goofy, isn’t it?
3. Dogs Die in Hot Cars has an unabashed affinity for the 1980s, the most problematic of musical decades. Don’t be silly; I don’t mean to imply that the band members wear pastel leg warmers and acid washed jeans. (If, in fact, they do fashion themselves after characters in The Breakfast Club, that’s merely a coincidence.) No, Dogs Die in Hot Cars is more like a distanced daydream of ‘80s luminaries like Dexys Midnight Runners, Crowded House, Talking Heads, and XTC. Incidentally, the record is produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the duo who had a hand in many ‘80s touchstones and atrocities.
4. Actually, let me slightly rephrase that last point: Dogs Die in Hot Cars sounds a lot like XTC. This raises an appreciative quandary. Roughly half of the songs on the band’s debut Please Describe Yourself borrow melodies, progressions, and bridges from XTC’s Black Sea and English Settlement. Lead singer Craig Macintosh’s voice is so similar to Andy Partridge’s that even the songs that stray from the XTC formula bear more than a passing resemblance. This makes for an occasionally uncomfortable experience, like listening to Jamiroquai’s Stevie Wonder jones or watching Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock indulgences. If you’re a big fan of XTC, you will instantly deem Dogs Die in Hot Cars an unworthy rip-off. You’ll cite the breezy “Modern Woman” and silly pin-up pining of “Celebrity Sanctum” as the most egregious offenses. By track five, “Apples & Oranges”, both the titular allusion to Oranges and Lemons and the blatant XTC psych-pop swells will cause you to shut the damn thing off and claim no allegiance to false gods.
5. Please Describe Yourself shakes some of its naked influences and begins to find its own voice around track six, the insanely ecstatic “Godhopping”. This is a mixed blessing, because it’s quite possible you’ve tuned out by then. If the record’s first half sounds like a band masking covers as originals, the second half uses its influences as less of a crutch and more of a splint. “Godhopping” is mad funky, a nasty little groove anchored by a squeaky guitar riff that works like Big Country running through Remain in Light‘s vertigo textures. “Lounger”, a strong addition to the canon of slacker anthems, shimmers with rhythmic urgency while expressing that ignorance is indeed bliss: “I know all I need to know / Why talk Swahili if it’s where I won’t go / Latin is clever and sexy is French / Sprechen sie Deutsche would hardly make sense”. Things really get exciting during “Pastimes & Lifestyles”, a propulsive pop gem that benefits from some inspired, unexpected chord changes. As gleaming guitars fire off the edgy shifts in the song’s outro, veering to and fro, multi-tracked vocals engage in near-rapturous harmonies. The album concludes with its most frazzled track, “Who Shot the Baby?” But instead of reaching closure, it caps off a run of six songs that balance on the cusp of a unique identity. I’m not sure what “Who Shot the Baby?” is about—most of the songs on Please Describe Yourself are lyrically obscured—but there seems to be a pun in there somewhere between the title and lines like “Buying the baby boom”.
6. So what is the worth of an album like Please Describe Yourself? What is the worth of a record that starts out wallowing in imitation and concludes with only some preliminary steps taken towards individuality? Take it for what it is, a pop record with a few strong pop hooks. You’d never mistake it for XTC, since Macintosh’s songs are nowhere near as complex or witty as Partridge’s. Probably the fairest impression we can walk away with is the promise Dogs Die in Hot Cars possesses to evolve into an idiosyncratic entity. Hey, even XTC themselves needed a few records before blossoming above the pack.